SYDNEY (Reuters) - The first coal train from an Australian mining area devastated by a cyclone reached port in the northern state of Queensland on Tuesday, sparking a race by major miners including BHP Billiton to secure spare capacity on the only operating line.
The reopening of the Blackwater line will allow Australian mines to start replenishing world coking coal supplies, with Thomson Reuters Eikon data showing 38 bulk cargo ships at anchor near Gladstone, most of them waiting to load coal.
Coking coal prices in China spiked last week on news of the disruption, but have since eased on a fall in local steel prices and as a resumption of shipments nears.
Just before 8 a.m. local time (2200 GMT) the first coal train arrived at Gladstone port for loading on the Aqua Bonanza, which will head for China on Wednesday, said shipping agent John Parks. Rail operator Aurizon said trains are running at reduced speeds.
However, the majority of coal in the region travels on Aurizon’s Goonyella line further north, which was cut by large landslides. Aurizon expects the line to be closed until May, leaving miners on that line chasing capacity on Blackwater and the most northern line, Newlands.
“We are all clamoring to fit into a queue,” said one miner on the Goonyella line who requested anonymity.
“It helps if you have mines on the other lines. If you don’t already have reserved capacity on the other lines you are at a big disadvantage.”
The long timeframe in getting the Goonyella line working again is linked to a stretch of rail that goes through a mountain range that experienced land slides during Cyclone Debbie.
A spokesman for BHP, which has interests in 11 coal mines in Queensland’s Bowen Basin, with most located on the Goonyella line, said the miner was planning to “expedite product from our mines while the rail network is being repaired”.
Repair gangs have cut a road in to the worst affected area at Black Mountain and are working round-the-clock shifts to clear what Aurizon calls a “significant” landslide from the Goonyella line, union representative Bruce Mackie told Reuters.
“They’re clearing the landslide so that once all that overburden is cleared, Aurizon can then assess what the track damage is. But until you get all of the mud out of the way and all the dirt out of the way you really dunno what it all looks like,” Mackie said.
The port itself at the end of the Goonyella line, called Hay Point, became fully operational on Monday, according to the Queensland government, although it can only move stockpiles delivered before the cyclone knocked out the rail line.
Jenny Patroni, postmaster at Black Mountain’s nearest township of Koumala, said the mountain-side glows with floodlights at night during the late shifts.
“They’ve got all the maintenance fellas working ... there’s backhoes, you name it, it’s going 24/7. It looks like another township,” she said.
Reporting by Tom Westbrook and Jonathan Barrett in SYDNEY. Additional reporting by Benjamin Weir; Editing by Richard Pullin